ISLAMABAD: THE big cardboard boxes that a team of investigators delivered to Pakistan’s Supreme Court on the morning of July 10th were not much to look at. They were held together with two different kinds of duct tape, and bore several labels reading “EVIDENCE” in bright red letters. But their contents—a 275-page report summarising the findings of a two-month corruption probe into the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his family, which the court released that evening—have turned Pakistan’s politics upside-down. The report said that Mr Sharif and his children could not adequately explain their wealth. The opposition promptly called for Mr Sharif and his entire cabinet to resign. Although he did not oblige, and denies any wrongdoing, the scandal may yet bring him down. Even if he survives, his grip on power, along with Pakistan’s recent and hard-won political stability, looks badly shaken.
For 20 years Mr Sharif has denied claims that he used ill-gotten gains from his first term in power, between 1990 and 1993, to purchase four flats on Park Lane, an expensive street in London. His government quashed one investigation into the subject in 1997, claiming it was politically motivated. A second collapsed in 2014, for lack of witnesses to substantiate the allegations. But the leak of a trove of documents from a Panamanian law firm last year suggested that the flats may have been owned by his children, via various offshore companies. The leak prompted Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), an opposition party, to petition the Supreme Court to dismiss Mr Sharif as unfit for office. It failed to reach a conclusive verdict on those charges, but instead appointed a “Joint Investigation Team” (JIT), composed of civilian and military officials, to look into the claims.
Back in the dock
The Supreme Court is due to decide what to do with the report on July 17th. It is likely to give Mr Sharif a few days to respond to the findings. It could then remove him from office, on the grounds that he does not meet the constitution’s requirement that elected officials be “honest and upright”. Or it could endorse the JIT’s recommendation that the National Accountability Bureau, a normally timid watchdog, bring charges against Mr Sharif and his children.
Whichever course the court takes, the JIT’s final report is “much worse” than Mr Sharif would have expected, says Fasi Zaka, a local pundit. Crucially, it finds that strict accountability laws adopted in 1999 shift the burden of proof onto Mr Sharif. He must show that all his assets were fairly acquired, or be presumed guilty—an arrangement that obviously boosts the chance of a conviction. During the original trial one Supreme Court judge likened the hunt for certifiable proof of money-laundering to “a blind man…trying to find a black cat in a dark room”.
The JIT’s report finds a “significant gap” between Mr Sharif’s known sources of income and his assets. It describes a bewildering web of companies around which the Sharif family’s funds are continually shifted. It notes that between 2009 and 2017 his son, Hussain Nawaz, gave him 1.1bn rupees ($10.3m), partly from the profits of one of these entities, which it labels a “likely attempt of money-laundering”. The JIT also rejects Mr Sharif’s explanation of the source of the money used to buy the flats on Park Lane. It calls the family’s claim that a prince from Qatar, Sheikh Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, provided the money for the flats a “myth”. It finds not a “single document” to prove that the Sharifs invested 12m dirhams ($3.25m) with the prince’s family in the 1980s, nor any to show that the prince’s family bought the flats in London for them as repayment. (Mr Sharif’s family has produced several letters from Sheikh Jassim’s son, Hamad, a former prime minister of Qatar, corroborating their account.)
The JIT also accuses Mr Sharif of failing to declare that he received a salary from an offshore company, Capital FZE, on an election form in 2013. And it contends that Maryam Sharif, his daughter and presumed political heir, forged documents submitted to the Supreme Court—a criminal offence which could see her disqualified from holding office. (One of the documents, a deed of trust dated 2006, appears to have been written in Calibri, a font made available only in 2007.)
Few Pakistanis had expected such a rigorous and ferocious report from the JIT. Such investigations are often the prelude to a whitewash. Officials from Mr Sharif’s party, the PML-N, handed out sweets when the Supreme Court announced it would set up the JIT and defer its final verdict until it provided its report. Now, anguished parliamentarians claim the JIT could only have been so categorical because it had been suborned by the army, which has long disliked Mr Sharif because of his willingness to seek better relations with India—an appalling prospect to the top brass.
Two of the JIT’s six members are indeed soldiers. Both the breadth of its report and the speed with which it was produced, says Umair Javed, a columnist, “suggests it had support from undisclosed quarters”. But equally, adds Mr Javed, that does not make the JIT’s report a wordier version of the coup in which the army unseated Mr Sharif in 1999. After all, the investigation stemmed from an external event—the Panamanian leak. And it was first requested by Mr Khan, the leader of a democratic political party, who has agitated incessantly for a full investigation.
Were Mr Sharif to resign, the PML-N would still have the strength in parliament to name his replacement—perhaps his brother Shabhaz, the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous state, or Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister. But Mr Sharif seems determined to tough it out. Should the Supreme Court initiate further protracted legal proceedings, they would completely overshadow Pakistani politics until the case is resolved. Mr Khan will doubtless initiate a fresh round of disruptive demonstrations demanding the prime minister’s resignation. And instability always conjures the fear that the army might launch a coup, as it so often has, in the name of restoring order.
The debacle is particularly unfortunate given the relative stability and prosperity of Mr Sharif’s current term in office. Terrorism, although still rife, has subsided dramatically. Economic growth has accelerated slightly, to a respectable 5.2% last year. Mr Sharif remains popular, and his government is widely held to be the least corrupt and most efficient in recent memory. It is beefing up Pakistan’s infrastructure, building dozens of roads, improving the railway network and constructing a metro line in Lahore, the capital of Punjab.
Better yet, Mr Sharif’s government succeeded another civilian administration—the first such transfer in decades. It also presided over the first routine retirement of an army chief in decades, which many interpreted as a sign of the growing clout of the civilian authorities. Whatever else the current turmoil yields, it will certainly have the opposite effect.